Cockfighting, gambling dens make Thailand's Covid-19 fight tougher

A cockfighting arena in Soi Sanaam Khli , Bangkok, in 2004. While cockfighting isn't prohibited in Thailand, gambling is.
A cockfighting arena in Soi Sanaam Khli , Bangkok, in 2004. While cockfighting isn't prohibited in Thailand, gambling is.PHOTO: ST FILE

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Cockfighting rings and illegal casinos are creating fresh challenges for Thailand as it struggles to contain its biggest wave of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began.

Hundreds of cases have been traced to cockfighting arenas and casinos, as an outbreak that began in seafood markets and migrant communities has now spread to such venues.

These cockfighting rings and gambling houses present a major risk as they bring many people together in tight quarters over an extended period of time, usually without face masks and with lots of talking and shouting - ideal conditions for the coronavirus to thrive.

"These places don't have good air circulation and are full of people without their masks on. They must be avoided," said Mr Opas Karnkawinpong, director-general of the Department of Disease Control. "No matter if these places are legal or illegal, we must avoid them, otherwise we risk bringing the virus to the family, the community."

While cockfighting isn't prohibited in Thailand, gambling is - though people often place bets at cockfighting arenas and illegal casinos.

As a result, some people who test positive are reluctant to disclose any personal information to the authorities, according to the Department of Disease Control's Sopon Iamsirithawon.

That hinders any tracing efforts and slows the government's ability to contain the rapidly growing outbreak.

Thailand, which was relatively successful last year in containing the pathogen, has more than doubled its Covid-19 cases in less than a month - to nearly 10,000 - with infections detected in more than 70 per cent of the country's provinces.

The new outbreak has prompted authorities to close schools and temporarily shut some businesses, including gyms, spas, pubs and bars in high-risk areas.

The majority of new cases have been among migrant workers employed in the seafood industry in Samut Sakhon province. But at least 76 infections can be traced back to a cockfighting ring in Ang Thong province, while more than 200 cases had histories of being in gambling dens in Rayong province as of Wednesday (Jan 6), according to the Health Ministry.

The authorities have urged people who have been to such venues to give accurate information to the authorities, self-isolate at home for 14 days, and visit the hospitals if they experience symptoms such as fever and cough.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered a probe into people running illegal gambling houses, and authorities on Thursday warned of "stricter punishments" for those involved in gambling.

Last year, when Thailand detected virus clusters in a boxing stadium and nightclubs that led to a surge in cases, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown and quickly contained the outbreak. But while the government has imposed some restrictions this time around, it has so far avoided a broad lockdown.

That softer approach could minimise the impact on the economy, said Mr Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bank of Ayudhya, but likely means it will take longer to contain the virus.